This past labour day weekend an article came out in the Globe and Mail that asked the question: What is Wrong with the Canadian Film Industry? A number of people reached out to me on social media to ask my opinion of this article and I found I could not answer in just a sentence or two, so here is my answer – 5 of the things wrong with the Canadian industry and some suggestions on how to fix them:
1. Movies are expensive to make.
The average budget of an English language film in Canada last year was about $7 million while those with Telefilm Feature Film Fund investment averaged $3.4 million (according to a report by the CMPA). This is a lot of money (even though it is small compared to Hollywood). It is the kind of investment that makes people reluctant to take risks and limits the number of projects that can be financed each year. Lots of movies of all kinds of budget levels do not get made because of this.
The fix: Smaller movies with smaller budgets ($1 million to $100K or less) would certainly allow more movies to get made each year. But small budgets do not attract stars, slick production values or investment from outside Canada and that is what is still driving the film industry (everywhere). The truth is movies coming from both Hollywood and the indie scene are struggling and looking for new sustainable models. Part of this will mean more microbudget films that will have to find new ways to define success beyond the theatrical and festival circuit. Canada has an opportunity to get ahead of this curve with the right kind of investment.
2. Canadian films are not Hollywood films.
Even at our highest levels, Canadian movies do not have big Hollywood budgets. I would argue EVERY Canadian film (at least those that are not international co-productions) needs to be treated as an indie film. This means it is not mass media. It is niche media. And yet, so many applications I have seen for film financing in Canada define their audience as everyone between the ages of 18 and 34. This is a problem. You will not have the money to reach an audience this broad. Even the biggest Canadian films are small films when compared to Hollywood.
The fix: Small films can dream big but need to think strategically small…and deep. This means niche audiences and niche marketing. You need to find passionate individuals and communities who represent your target audiences. These people will love your story so much they will come on board early and will be eager and willing to help you spread the word and find success. It’s not easy, but it is very much the new paradigm of success in the indie film world.
3. Not enough investment in audience development & marketing.
Most filmmakers want to put every cent they have raised onto the screen. In other words, into the making of the movie. However, it doesn’t matter how great the thing looks if no one ever sees it. That speaks to the marketing of the movie, something more filmmakers are expected to participate in, if not take complete responsibility for (especially if they fail to get festival and theatrical distribution).
The fix: I recently read a New York Times article about a Hollywood film with a $600K production budget, a little movie from a big studio. It tested well with audiences but ended up going to VOD instead of theatrical because Hollywood believes to market a movie of this size with no stars will cost at least $20 million! Yikes. Trying to give a mass marketing push to a niche movie is expensive.
This kind of mass marketing approach remains an impossibility here in Canada for a film of ANY size. However, filmmakers should budget at least 10% of your production budget for marketing. And you must have a very deep and thorough understanding of who your audience is, where they are and how they want to engage with your story so you can get the most bang for your marketing buck. Recognize the power of targeting strategic niches and use it. With the digital tools and tactics at your disposal, this information is available and within your power to exploit. If you have not set aside that money and cannot define your audience clearly, you should maybe consider investing your time and effort in a different project.
4. Filmmakers don’t know their audience.
I mentioned before that many of the marketing plans I have seen for Canadian films and other screen media projects identify their target audience in the broadest terms possible. This is an attempt to prove how marketable their films are but it just shows how little thought has gone into who will want to watch or engage with these stories. This greatly decreases a project’s chance for any kind of success with the budgets we have available for promotion and audience engagement in this country.
The fix: Think about your audience and learn who they are. Part of this is understanding and targeting relevant niches. But there are also some broader truths filmmakers need to be aware of in the new indie and digital model. Here are some of them:
- Audiences are the new gatekeepers. In this age of content abundance the thing in short supply is audience attention. They are empowered with so many options and control as to how they spend their “free” time. They are the ones who need to be courted and negotiated with more than broadcasters, distributors & other curators.
- Audience is going to the movie theatre less. Telefilm put out a great report last year on how Canadians are consuming audiovisual content (it should be a must read for anyone wanting to make this kind of content in the country). It shows people prefer to watch movies in their own homes on TV screens in their favourite chairs, and there is some momentum with the youngest demographic (15-17) to watch movies on their mobile devices. An even more recent Telefilm study on Canadians who go to the movies found while 10% said they went more than last year, 28% said they were going less. This means filmmakers should be paying attention to reaching audience on smaller screens.
- Audiences are impatient. We live in an age of instant gratification. We have forgotten how to wait for things, mostly because we don’t have to. This impatience contributes to online piracy and is something that filmmakers and distributors should be taking into account when it comes to the marketing and distribution of movies. When people hear about a movie they want to see it NOW. They don’t want to wait for six months, one month or even a week. This is especially important to know for indie films with limited or no theatrical release. Getting your movie online and available as soon as possible (preferably at the same time as the theatrical release with a day and date release) means you can maximize your marketing efforts and dollars and gain the most viewers/buyers in the shortest amount of time.
- Audiences want more. When people love a story they often can’t get enough. MORE can mean the behind-the-scenes tidbits, extra story conveyed on and through different media (like books or games or even social media storytelling), or more episodes, sequels or different stories set in the same storyworld. A single movie as a storytelling medium is often not enough story to truly feed a fandom that can’t get enough. Filmmakers should figure out ways to not only create the kind of story that stirs up these kinds of passions, but also ways to fulfill that desire across not just one movie but an entire body of work. Filmmakers also have to become more comfortable with the audience taking more ownership of beloved characters and storyworlds and even find ways to collaborate and participate in the fan creations. It is also tapping into this kind of passion that leads to successful crowdfunding campaigns.
5. There is little sharing of data among filmmakers.
Most of the complete indie film case studies I know of come from the US and the UK. There is very little disclosure about what worked and, even more importantly, what didn’t work on Canadian films. Part of this is because our funding system penalizes failure. Filmmakers become very reluctant to tell the true story of how their movie fared in the world. Everything shared is pretty selective and spun in the glossiest terms possible
The fix: Success needs to be redefined for the industry. It is more than box office and awards. There needs to be room and support for more experiments like the collapsed release windows of The Corner Gas Movie and the IndieCan ultra low budget experiment. To move the industry collectively forward it would be amazing if we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each and every time because we don’t know what worked and what didn’t in the past.
I, of course, believe strongly in the digital opportunity for films and other stories and would love to see more experiments in this realm especially. This is the space the audience is gravitating towards more and more for discovery if not consumption.Here data is abundant and can be brutally honest if you are willing to look. This is the kind of information we need to be brave enough to share to help redefine success and figure out the new indie model.
So those are a few of my thoughts in response to the question asked by The Globe and Mail. I would love to hear yours. Share your thoughts, ideas, questions below or send them to me at annelise (at) veria.ca or on Twitter @veriatweet.
Or revisit the previous issue: The Future of Film is Now for These Digital Storypreneurs